A turn to the psychotic: why characters evolve independently

She started out so sweet and innocent — a lovely girl with a sordid past, just doing her best to survive a twist of fate she hadn't expected. Until her mind broke in a familiar pattern and suddenly, suddenly, she was her own worst enemy.

12710731_10154022404709884_1510275480351753323_oYes, I'm trying my best to be vague because I don't want to give away the psychotic turn in my novel, My Mom's a Killer. Not that giving that away would ruin the book, because it's about so much more than an unexpected character twist.

This post, on the other hand, is about nothing more than that.

See, when I had non-writers (and even some writers) read my novel, a common question was, Can't you make Maria different — can't you make her more redeemable?

To which I replied that I can't make her do anything. She is a character who makes her own decisions, who has a personality that I can't change.

Which got me a very blank stare and a confused...but didn't you create her?

Well, sort of. I didn't create her so much as stumble upon her in the recesses of my mind. I did not conjure up her personality and motivations out of nothing; I simply discovered them as I wrote.

It's a hard thing to explain to people who aren't in the business of creating characters, but it's something I hear more and more often from fellow writers: characters do what they want, when they want, how they want, and we're just here to write their stories.

But today I've decided I'm going to endeavor to explain what that looks like. It will be hard, because I don't really know myself why it works this way. I don't have scientific reasoning or a wealth of experience. I tried looking it up, but my skills with the Google are, unfortunately, not so great, so I found nothing.

I'm on my own, then.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Creation from nothing is humanly impossible: we can't conjure up something out of nothing. We're not Harry Potter. Yes, women can create babies where babies were not, but that's not pulling something out of nothing: it's taking materials that are already in our bodies and conjoining them. Yes, that's a weird way to describe where babies come from. Moving on.
  2. Creativity is less about creation and more about discovery: I mentioned this above, but I believe that when we create something, a piece of art, a character, a new dance move, we're not truly creating. We're discovering something that was already within us. If creation from nothing is impossible for humans, then all the ideas we have must have already been inside of us. Now, this has the opportunity to lead us into a weird metaphysical conversation, which I am not so equipped for. So, again, moving on.
  3. If we're discovering characters, they are free to move on their own: it's similar to having a child. Again, you didn't create the child from nothing, you took elements that were already there and changed them. So if, with characters, we aren't truly creating but simply discovering, the act of characterization is just a long-time discovery of how and why they act the way they do. I can no more make Maria repent than I can make my friend stand on her head without her volition.
  4. Therefore, I cannot control what and how they act: as a writer, I am more of a messenger than anything else. I simply relay characters and their stories to others. And while that is hurtful to my pride (because I want to be in charge of literally everything), it's something I have to admit. I don't know where or why or how story ideas and characters come from me to you; I just know they do, and I am not nearly prideful enough to believe I conjured them up on my own.

This has been a very strange, pseudo-metaphysical, sort of philosophical, not-at-all scientific blog post. I'm more trying to start a conversation than lay down the law: these are my ideas, based on my experience. If you're a writer (or a reader) and you have an opinion or a correction or anything like that, please leave it in the comments. I'd love to learn from you!